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The United States Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a lower court ruling limiting tribal law enforcement authority to stop and search non-Native residents. The high court’s unanimous decision in United States v. Cooley, which originated on the Crow Reservation in southeast Montana, was heralded as a win for tribal sovereignty and law enforcement authority.

In the opinion issued by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court found that restricting tribal law enforcement officers from stopping, searching and temporarily detaining non-Native people could compromise officers’ ability to protect the “health or welfare of the tribe.” That language stems from a previous case, Montana v. United States, in which the court ruled against the Crow Tribe’s ability to regulate fishing and hunting by non-tribal members on land that is not owned by the tribe. That limitation on the tribe’s enforcement authority, Breyer wrote, was issued with important exceptions, including a provision for responding to threats against a tribe’s health or welfare.

“To deny a tribal police officer authority to search and detain for a reasonable time any person he or she believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats,” Breyer wrote in the Cooley decision. “Such threats may be posed by, for instance, non-Indian drunk drivers, transporters of contraband, or other criminal offenders operating on roads within the boundaries of a tribal reservation.”

“To deny a tribal police officer authority to search and detain for a reasonable time any person he or she believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats.”

Justice Stephen Breyer

The Cooley case arose in 2016. A Crow Police Department officer found a man with a child in the backseat of his truck pulled over on the side of U.S. Highway 212, which runs through the Crow Nation. The officer, James Saylor, found that the man, Joshua Cooley, had “watery, bloodshot eyes” and did not appear to be Native American. After a search of Cooley and the vehicle, Saylor found methamphetamine, a glass pipe and two semi-automatic rifles. 

While he was later indicted on federal drug and gun offenses, Cooley’s defense successfully argued to suppress the evidence Saylor had collected, citing the officer’s lack of investigative authority over a non-Native person on a public road. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld that decision, prompting the case to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Crow Tribe did not immediately issue a statement in response to the court’s Tuesday ruling. Chairman Frank White Clay could not be reached for comment.

During oral arguments in the case, the Department of Justice attorney representing the petitioner argued that tribal law enforcement agents should be allowed to exercise authority over non-Native people, saying the 9th Circuit’s ruling puts tribal members at risk.

“These areas are policed primarily often by tribal officers. And if they lack this authority, it’s going to endanger everyone on the reservation,” DOJ attorney Eric J. Feigin said in late March. 

The attorney representing the defendant, Eric H. Henkel, sought to convince the justices that tribes do not have authority over non-Native people and that Congress has “plenary authority over Indian affairs.” In his opinion, Breyer did not side with the defendant’s argument, saying “no treaty or statute has explicitly divested Indian tribes of the policing authority at issue,” and that the case at hand fit within the exemptions outlined in the court’s previous Montana ruling.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.